Miami Heat

Strength of Dwyane Wade-LeBron James duo is being tested

A Miami Heat weakness? These pieces don’t fit perfectly. A Heat strength? The friendship of the two men at the center of the puzzle. Just six victories from the trophy, which will triumph? The weakness or the strength?

Miami, great as it is, should be better, right? But it is not. That much has become clear after two years of this riveting experiment. Miami isn’t leaps-and-bounds better than the elite. Boston won the title in 2008 immediately after bringing three lesser talents together — producing the league’s best record, its 66 wins the second-most in the fabled franchise’s history — because those parts and skills congealed more effortlessly than these, with less colliding redundancy. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen occupied different parts of the floor, so they could be three artists working on three different canvasses. Here, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade must always share that paint.

This fundamental flaw in Miami’s blueprint can be overcome, given the size of the talent and the will. Miami was within two victories of doing so last year. But it doesn’t make the weakness any less so. And that brings us to how James and Wade have chosen to attack the dilemma this year, relying on a bond that strengthens even as so many things test it, maybe because so many things test it. This friendship, seen growing before your eyes in celebratory pictures together at weddings and engagement parties, might be the only thing under-covered about this wonderfully noisy team.

LeBron came to Wade’s city to be by his friend’s side. Wade, not the MVP, gets introduced last at games, to the largest ovation. Wade, not the MVP, was the guy at the center of the magazine covers the three shared. Wade, more often than not, has had the ball at the end of games. If you think these are small things that don’t break up big egos — the need for credit and validation, and the resentments that need can bring — you don’t remember how the championship partnerships of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant dissolved. James and Wade are attempting to navigate around the land mines that break up rock groups.

(The Eagles came to blows backstage during a concert once, Glenn Frey announcing that the group would reunite when “Hell freezes over.” That’s why the 1994 reunion tour was called Hell Freezes Over.)

But Wade, always a lead singer, has willingly handed the microphone to James this season. Miami lost doing it another way last year, Chris Bosh being the only one who actually sacrificed his game as Wade and James just took turns with the ball and the stage. Look at the numbers from last postseason. In 21 playoff games, Wade and James took an identical 373 shots. This year? In 14 playoff games, James has taken 297 and Wade has taken 256. Wade has, by his own admission, stepped back because he knows LeBron is a better player, the most efficient in the league. In Oklahoma City, meanwhile, Russell Westbrook had taken more playoff shots than scoring champion Kevin Durant (236 to 223) entering Saturday night’s game.

So here’s the result as Wade tries to work around the MVP and become more of a helpful sidekick:

Wade has scored 25 points or fewer in 10 of 14 playoff games this year. James has gone under 25 just twice. It isn’t just because James is playing better, though he is; it is because his friend Dwyane has made a conscious effort to get out of his way. Last year? In 21 playoff games, as he just tried to fit in with his friend, James scored 25 points or fewer 13 times, including all six NBA Finals games.

A true friend

There has been a sea-to-shining-sea mocking of James’ mental strength because of this, accusing him of a shrinking frailty, but it could have been a byproduct of an unselfish James deferring in the Finals while trying to fit on a team with imperfectly paired parts — deferring to the good friend who had already won a title. And so now Wade, a year later, tries to return the favor, and endures the kind of playoff inconsistency and criticism in Miami he has never known as a result. The only one not sacrificing his game on today’s Heat is the guy who won MVP.

Wade has said flatly that he feels almost like he wants a title for LeBron more than he wants it for himself. Outside his comfort zone on a balky knee, he has produced a few awful halves and one brutal game (five points) that have left him open, for the first time in his career, to the type of criticism James has been getting relentlessly for the past two seasons, this as James ravages everything in his path. And how’s that for friendship? Choosing to make some of your friend’s burden your own?

“We’re a better team this year,” Wade says. “That comes with what happened last year, learning each other but also going through ups and downs and the biggest down you can for through. Yeah, we’re a better team. Does that mean anything? I guess we’ll find out.”

Miami players have marveled at the intensity James has brought to this truncated season, Udonis Haslem saying, “He’s so loyal, caring and hard-working. He brings it every practice. Guys with that talent can be lazy, but the energy he brings, we all think there is something wrong with him.”

Wade admitted for the first time earlier this year that James is better than he is. No small thing, that, not in this world. To make the long climb from ghettos to mansions, over all the hardships and competition, confidence is a useful weapon but self-awareness is not. There is not a workplace ecosystem as cutthroat as the one you’ll find in sports, especially this sport, where the dollars and men are big but the number of jobs is not — and the impoverished inner cities are fighting for them … and a way out. Confidence, not self-awareness, is why Metta World Peace says “I’m better” when asked how he compares with Wade, and why Ricky Davis once said he had the skills of Michael Jordan, and why Antoine Walker said he thought he was the best player in the league. Confidence, not self-awareness, is why Erik Spoelstra says that, against all logic, Mario Chalmers is the most confident player on the Heat.

So why did you say LeBron was better than you, Dwyane?

“I try to speak the truth,” Wade says. “He is. It’s no secret. That doesn’t take anything away from any other player or myself. I’ve always thought I was one of the best. But, both ends of the floor, his dominance, he’s the best in the NBA.”

Yes, they argue

Because they are real and legitimate friends, Wade and LeBron sometimes get into arguments, like all friends do.

“It’s not really like angry and yelling,” he says. “It is more like we can get on each other’s case without affecting the friendship. We know we have each other’s best interests at hand. I may not have liked it at the moment of the [argument], or vice versa, but you can come back and say, ‘He was right.’ Or ‘You weren’t right.’ When we decided to play together, we decided that we have to be able to criticize each other.”

Wade is asked for an example of a raging disagreement between them. He begins to answer, but has learned to distrust.

“Nah,” he says. “Can’t open up the personal book of what we say. Might get turned around a little bit — a byte of what I say here and there and it becomes bigger.

“Let’s forget about it.”

Magic Johnson has criticized the James-Wade union, calling it too friendly. Wade respectfully dismisses this.

“He has his opinion,” Wade says. “I respect his opinion. But that’s all it is — an opinion. We don’t concern ourselves with opinions on the outside. No one is in our locker room. No one is us. You aren’t walking in our moccasins. Criticize or support us, it is fine. You can’t say what you would or wouldn’t do as us because you aren’t in our locker room.”

Two very good friends will walk out of that locker room Sunday night, into a hostile and frenzied Boston. Lose Sunday to make the series 2-2, and the doubt and criticism and mocking return to test their bond again. Win, though, and it is all but over. You essentially finish not only Boston’s season, but you come back to Miami to finish this era of Boston basketball, forever.

You couldn’t get past these old Celtics when you were apart, LeBron and Dwyane.

Now let’s see what you can do to them when you are more together than you have ever been.

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